Why a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics does nothing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that Canada, like many other democratic countries, will participate in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Though many are praising the Prime Minister, and leaders of other countries diplomatically boycotting the Games, I see this as a form of posturing that shows little courage with no prospect of making change. 

When I first heard rumours that countries may begin to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in response to human rights violations by the host nation of China, I was taken by surprise.

Had politicians really emerged from their embryonic state and grown a backbone? They of course have not, and this rumour simply appealed more to my credulity than to my reason. Democracies would stage a “diplomatic boycott,” where athletes are still able to compete, but politicians will not attend. 

The decision to diplomatically boycott the Games, according to the world leaders who have said their countries will, was made because of concerns over human rights in China.

If this is the moral maxim we would like to apply, one could not be upset about athletes competing in an Olympic Games held in North Korea, so long as politicians did not attend and supported the “diplomatic boycott.” 

Morality dictates that if you are truly appalled by human rights abuses in China, you must boycott the Games completely, including athletes. I understand the complexities of explaining this to athletes.

After all, they have trained for their entire lives for this event, have had no say in the host country, and no say in how the host country treats its people. And now I would ask those athletes to boycott the Games? Yes. 

If people watch the Games for the athletes, they will not care about the absence of politicians.

The Games will happen as planned and the diplomatic boycott will disappear into a collective forgetfulness. A Games where superstar athletes stand up to a human rights-abusing regime and refuse to participate? A Games where viewers are forced to ask why so few athletes are participating? That is a statement that cannot be soon forgotten. 

We ought to pour scorn on politicians who would try to posture as human-rights defenders when their actions ignore the suffering of millions in the Games’ host nation. If you’re going to be a coward, give up the “diplomatic boycott” and just go to the Games.

If you actually want to stand for something and believe yourself when you say you are boycotting the Games due to human rights abuses, boycott the Games in full, including the athletes.

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